The combined effects of increased temperature and ocean acidification on the early life history stages of Caribbean coral and its implication for the recovery potential of Florida reefs

The early life history stages of coral are an essential component determining the recovery potential of coral reefs through sexual reproduction and recruitment. The pelagic larval phase is inherent in all coral species regardless of differing reproductive strategies and is the only time in coral life history where large scale movement is possible allowing for the repopulation of reef areas both within and outside the natal reef habitat. In the face of climate change, the larval dispersal and recruitment phase will take place in a warmer more acidic ocean if we continue on the path of unabated fossil fuel emissions. While much research has focused on how increased temperature or ocean acidification affect coral larvae independently, our understanding of how these factors interact to shape larval response is limited, especially in regards to Caribbean coral species.

To gain a better understanding of how the early life history stages of Caribbean coral may be affected by climate change, this dissertation investigates the effects of increased temperature (2.5 °C above historical averages in the Florida Keys) and carbon dioxide levels (900-1000 parts per million CO2) on corals from the Florida Reef tract by investigating the effects on larval metabolism, survivorship, settlement, and post-settlement growth and survival. Additionally, a coupled biophysical model was developed to determine the potential changes in connectivity that may result from the biological effects of increased temperature and ocean acidification on the larval phase. The larval respiratory response of three Caribbean coral species revealed Orbicella faveolata as the most environmentally responsive with significant increases in respiration after 1 day exposure to increased temperature (68% greater than control conditions) with a counteracting effect of ocean acidification significantly decreasing respiration. The changes in metabolism over time correlated with decreased time to competency under elevated temperature in O. faveolata larvae, resulting in a greater number of settlers (76% greater than control) and a relative increase in local retention and self-recruitment rates as revealed by the biophysical model (5 and 7% greater than control respectively). However, when increased temperature occurred in combination with elevated CO2 levels, respiration was not significantly increased relative to control conditions and development of competency is minimally impacted. This resulted in a smaller increase in settlers (13% greater than control) and no significant changes in connectivity patterns. The post-settlement phase was similarly impacted with counteracting effects of increased temperature and ocean acidification on recruit growth.

Overall, this dissertation reveals the potential for adaptation to increased temperature in at least one important coral species (Orbicella faveolata) that is greatly diminished when encountered in combination with ocean acidification. These results encourage the reduction of carbon emissions to give coral species the chance to adapt to elevated temperatures through the recruitment of more resilient individuals without the additional stress of ocean acidification.

Fisch J., 2017. The combined effects of increased temperature and ocean acidification on the early life history stages of Caribbean coral and its implication for the recovery potential of Florida reefs. PhD thesis, University of Miami. Thesis (under embargo).

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Ocean acidification in the IPCC AR5 WG II

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